The Ideal of a Leisure State

G. K. Chesterton

Among the strange and rather stiff antics of the rather antiquated art of party journalism is the duty laid upon the good party man of trying to disagree with his opponents when they have the impudence to agree with him. He not only has to insist that they are wrong; he has to deny their right to be right. Even when you have to admit that your antagonist is talking sense, even when you pride yourself on talking exactly the same sense, you have to deny that it is sensible of him to talk sense. Or you deny that it is sense in the same sense; or sense in the true sense of the word. More often you simply imply that it is inconsistent and irrational in him to talk sense, because it is his whole duty and high function in State to talk nonsense. It is his business to be wrong; it is his business to be beaten; he is the invisible playmate, who sides with the Frenchman and never can win. That he should suddenly side with his own country, or win the approval of his own critics, is regarded as a form of cheating. Twice lately I have noticed a party leader saying things that any sensible person would say, but not allowed by the Opposition Press to say them, because he was not supposed to be a sensible person. One of them was when Mr. Baldwin pointed out the appalling peril of directly declaring war on all Trade Unionists at the very moment when we are supposed to be persuading them not to be Bolshevists. The other was when Mr. George Lansbury said to the effect that the dole was a deplorable necessity, because every man in the world ought to grow up expecting to work. But the conventional journalists, instead of agreeing with Mr. Landsbury, sneered at him for agreeing with them.

Well, that way of working against Bolshevism will have its Nemesis; the Nemesis of all nonsense, which is neglect. A new generation will go straight to the problems and forget all about the party quarrels. If we want to know what the future will be like, as far as anybody can know it, we must begin at the springs of thought and theory, the sources of the river, and not merely potter about in the swamps where it straggles away into its last labyrinthine delta of lobbying and intrigue. We must consider what ideas there are in the world at present, and in what way they are likely to mould the future. Now Mr. George Lansbury, whether consciously or not, really touched on one of the most important of these intellectual conflicts, which so often precede political and even military conflicts. And the position which he took up upon that matter was that of a conservative or a traditionalist; or as some on the otherside would say, of a Tory.

The controversy I mean has nothing to do with Socialism or Capitalism. It is a question about the nature of human life, even of ideal human life, which cuts across all these things and would probably divide Socialism into two camps. It is something which some speculators have already begun to discuss under the name of "The Leisure State." It is something which was suggested, perhaps, in the title and work of Mr. H.G. Wells called "The World Set Free." It does not mean the world set free from the sceptre or the sabre; it means the world set free from the spade and the ploughshare. It means that it might be possible so to organize machinery that the whole life of man on the earth should be one of leisure and not of labour. I will not pretend to discuss whether it would be mechanically possible. But it is time we began to discuss whether it is morally desirable. I am entirely at one with the Socialists in wishing to give most men less work and some men more work. But the abstract question propounded here is not that question; it is whether, if we could, we would give nobody any work. It assumes for the sake of argument the dark and dubious principle that labour-saving devices will save labour. It asks whether, even then, we always want to save labour. We talk of paying too much for labour; should we or should we not pay too much for idleness?

Many of the idealists can only conceive of an idle humanity as an ideal humanity. They talk as if no man could ever rest until he reached Utopia; or as if a really long holiday were something like heaven, utterly distant and divine. Their social philosophy is that of the hearty and humorous epitaph of the charwoman, who had gone on to do nothing for ever and ever. But even now it is by no means certain that those who are not charwomen really become any more hearty and humorous by doing nothing for ever and ever. A vast amount of stuffy and sentimental humbug has been uttered in favour of the Gospel of Work. As it was said that Carlyle talked a great deal in praise of silence, it may also be respectfully affirmed that he idled away a great deal of his time meditating on the virtues of labour. Work is not necessarily good for people; overwork is very bad for people; and both often begin with a bad motive and come to a bad end. Many a modern industrialist has prided himself on being as industrious as he was industrial. And it meant little more than that he was ready to sweat himself, as well as his neighbors, when he wanted to swindle his neighbors. Many a modern man has lived by the Gospel of Work, when it meant the spirit that will always work against the Gospel. A great deal of harm has been done by setting up these oily machines as models for mankind. I would not point to these ideal industrious men; I would turn away men's eyes from the painful picture of the Industrious Apprentice; I would veil their faces lest they should be disturbed by the repulsive appearance of the man who Attended These Classes and Is Making Big Money Now. I would hastily remove this deplorable person; but would gently remind the Utopians that he is not the only kind of person who is deplorable.

Now, the Leisure State exists already. It can be represented at any sort of function such as is called a State Banquet or State Ball. The World Set Free exists already. It exists in the world that specially claims to call itself the world. It exists in the world which Socialists and Utopians specially claim to call worldly. We are in a position even now to judge pretty well, in a general fashion, what is the effect on human beings having nothing particular to do. The "world" is already set free, if that is freedom; but is it exactly what the Utopians want to demand as freedom? It is undoubtedly an idle society, but is it an ideal society? Is Utopia to be found in Belgravia any more than in Bohemia? Are the rich all good or better than anybody else? Are they all clever or cleverer than anybody else? Are they even all free and happy, or all freer and happier than anybody else? And though there are good and clever and free and happy people among the idle rich, as there are among the idle poor, not to mention the industrious poor, I think it is broadly true that most of us have found that the most sincere and sensible people were people who earned their own living. I agree therefore with Mr. Landbury in differing from those who would perpetuate eternal unemployment combined with universal doles, and who call that ignominious combination The World Set Free.

But there is another strong objection which I, one of the laziest of all the children of Adam, have against the Leisure State. Those who think it could be done argue that a vast machinery using electricity, water-power, petrol, and so on, might reduce the work imposed on each of us to a minimum. It might, but it would also reduce our control to a minimum. We should ourselves become parts of a machine, even if the machine only used those parts once a week. The machine would be our master; for the machine would produce our food, and most of us could have no notion of how it was really being produced. A free man would rather be a peasant rising at dawn to put more work on his own field. In other words, in the social formula to which we are all accustomed, the peasant has control over the means of production. The occasional adjunct to the intermittent machine would have no control whatever over his own leisure, but less over his own life. Machinery organized in that fashion would have to be organized from an official centre; and no more controlled by its adjuncts than the tiniest of the little wheels can wind a watch. The leisured persons might be many things in their long hours of leisure. It is not impossible, by the parallel of plutocracy, that they might be profligates, perverts, drugtakers, dram-drinkers, pessimists, and suicides. But they might all be poets and artists and philosophers. They would not be citizens.

-from The Illustrated London News, March 21, 1925

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Martin Ward, De Montfort University, Leicester.